If ever a case needed to be open to the public, it is the prosecution of George Zimmerman for his shooting of the unarmed Trayvon Martin. Yet a judge, without due consideration, granted a request to seal the records. It was a precipitous and ill-considered decision that should be reversed.
News outlets are challenging the action. In separate motions, newspapers, television stations and other organizations argue that the court should unseal the records to preserve the public's ability to monitor a case of intense and legitimate public interest.
It is not uncommon for lawyers, especially defense lawyers, to seek to keep aspects of high-profile cases secret. Their argument is that the publicity will taint the jury pool and, thus, the cause of justice. It isn't so. Courts are routinely able to protect both the rights of defendants and of the public by taking greater care during the jury selection process. They can also limit what the lawyers can say about the case out of court.
The need to strike that balance is especially important in this case, with its intrinsic and high-profile issues of race and gun laws. The public's interest is both compelling and obvious, and there has been no showing that there was any critical need to seal the records in this case. Indeed, the motion was granted without ever giving the news media a chance to contest the decision. That is why the media have filed the motion to unseal the records.
A lawyer representing the news media made the case clearly in the Los Angeles Times this week.
"The criminal justice process belongs to the public, and it's supposed to be difficult to seal documents that are part of criminal trials, especially given the number of important public issues raised in this case," attorney Scott D. Ponce of the law firm Holland and Knight said in an email. "The media companies we represent are challenging the fact that these records were sealed without prior notice to the public, and on nothing more than Mr. Zimmerman's attorney asking that they be sealed. The law does not allow that."
That's exactly right. A judge made a knee-jerk decision on a motion that should instead have prompted the hearing that media outlets are now seeking. That is what needs to happen.
Zimmerman has a right to a fair trial and the public has a right to know what the public documents in this case say. It is up to the courts to ensure that all interests are considered and protected. They have done it in the past, and they can do it in this case, too.